August Astronomy

Space fans should get their binoculars and telescopes dusted off for August. There will be lots to see with the aid of machine or the trusty naked eye. The gringa will share a cosmic calendar for the month ahead so everyone schedule their dinners and bedtimes accordingly if you want to enjoy some breathtaking galactic events rather than hunker down for digital entertainment indoors.

August 2 – New Moon:  Without the interference of moonlight this is the perfect night to explore other galaxies and nearby star clusters who will be shining in all their glory with no competition from our little satellite.

August 11,12 – Perseids Meteor Shower: At its peak, this little baby (pictured above) has the potential to create up to 60 meteors per hour (gives a whole new meaning to MPH). We can all thank comet Swift-Tuttle for this fantastic light show. Discovered in 1862. it has consistently provided entertainment for Earthlings through July and August. The event will peak on these two days in August. The best time to watch is right after the moon sets around midnight. Or, for those early to bed and early to rise, a pre-dawn show is also prime time for Perseids observation.

August 16 – Mercury:  This is the best time to view Mercury as it reaches it greatest eastern elongation from the Sun. Look for it in the evening sky at the highest point of the horizon or at a low point in the western sky just after sunset.

August 18 – Full Moon:  This is the best time to get a great look at our pockmarked neighbor. Full illumination will occur between 9-10pm  UTC. A bit of full Moon trivia: some Native American tribes call the full Moon a Full Sturgeon Moon because these nights are the best times to catch this type of fish that populates the Great Lakes. Other tribes also called the full Moon the Green Corn Moon or the Grain Moon.

August 27 – Venus & Jupiter:  These two planets are going to join together in close proximity for a spectacular opportunity to see them both. Look for them in the western sky soon after sunset.  They will be shining very brightly and close together.


Image Credit:



Ceres, Dawn, Pyramids & Craters

NASA’s spacecraft Dawn has been on a mission to the planet Ceres which is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Compared to Earth’s diameter of almost 8,000 miles, Ceres seems tiny with a diameter of less than 600 miles. It is so small that despite its official designation as a minor-planet, there are still those who will call it an asteroid or a dwarf planet. To put it in perspective, the entire surface of Ceres is about the same size as India or Argentina. Whatever the moniker, the dear reader gets the point. Still, UFO and ET enthusiasts like to believe that Ceres was once home to an intelligent otherworldly species that liked to build pyramids. The gringa can only say, “Um, not.”

Why is the gringa so sure of herself in raining on their parade? Let’s take a look at some of the geographical and geological characteristics of this teensy-weensy little world:


First of all, just take an up close and personal look at the pitiful pitted little thing. It has more impact craters than an eight-year-old ginger gringa had freckles. It seems pretty obvious to me that with global environmental disasters happening on a regular basis, it is very unlikely that life would flourish in such a place. Not to mention any surviving life having the opportunity to pursue advancements.


Ceres, in many ways, is pretty much a clone of our desolate moon, an enormous rock with a lot of ice. With no evidence or traces of ever having vegetation, any ETs most assuredly would have starved to death. Unless, of course, it was a civilization that could survive on the nourishment of clay seasoned with ammonia and a splash of salt and iron.


It’s highly unlikely that water as we Earthlings know it ever existed on Ceres. Although there is alot of ice, enough even to indicate the possibility of an ocean at one time, it wouldn’t have been a salty brine like we are accustomed to, inhabited with sharks and whales and penguins and such. It most likely would have been a caustic sea of ammonia and sulfuric acid. So, unless those ETs had skin of steel and enjoyed a dip in antifreeze, any recreational activities of a Ceres civilization would have been strictly limited to land-lubbing.

Details, Details, Details

If the gringa has sufficiently convinced you that no one was building pyramids on Ceres way back when, let us move on to the details that are still interesting despite lacking any ET spin.

In the late 1700s Johann Elert Bode suspected a planet existed between Mars and Jupiter. However, the official discovery of Ceres is credited to Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801 who first claimed it was a comet. It was later classified as a planet but then redesignated as an asteroid in the 1850s. It seems scientists still haven’t made up their minds because it can be called any number of names when referred to by different people. The gringa doesn’t so much care. It makes no difference to me. Ceres is just Ceres, a planet named after the Roman goddess of agriculture despite the fact that not a single ear of corn or blade of grass has ever been grown on its surface.

Over thousands of years meteors and comets have slammed into Ceres, creating hundreds of craters. A few of them are distinctly bright, containing either minerals with reflective properties or light reflecting off of ice. It is theorized that underneath the crusty and dusty surface of Ceres is a layer of water and ice that, by volume, is more than the fresh water found on Earth. This has led to scientists entertaining the notion that if living organisms once lived in the sea of Ceres, it is possible that through the many cosmic impacts throughout history some biological material may have been ejected into space and made its way to Earth. So, ETs on Ceres? The gringa thinks not. ETs from Ceres on Earth? It’s possible.


Ceres is too dim to be seen with the naked eye except on extremely dark sky conditions. The best way to peek at Ceres is through a pair of binoculars or a telescope. The best time to see Ceres is fast approaching, from August through April. Observers in mid northern latitudes should look toward the low southern sky after nightfall. It is best to view on a night when the Moon is in waning stages. Look toward the Sagittarius constellation and Ceres will arc slowly westward and approach the border of the Capricorn constellation.

If you have a fancy telescope you can enter coordinates and the telescope will do the hard work of locating and tracking for you. But if you only have binoculars, it is still easy enough to locate and track Ceres so don’t be discouraged.   For some help in finding Ceres, online astronomy clubs are a great resource.  The gringa wishes you the greatest success in taking a peek at Ceres!


Image Source:








Who’s In For A 2-Month Long, Melanoma-Free Day?

As researchers plot their space plans to discover where possibilities lie for a home planet like Earth, that might even be supporting our ancestors, where are they looking? MIT astronomers comprising an international team in Belgium are plotting for a search about 40 light years away. That means if we don’t want a spaceship to arrive with astronauts dead of old age or perhaps affected by age-related dementia, we have to send astronauts in the age group of 20s-40s to manage the forty year flight mission. It may take another decade or two for space agencies to have the ability to travel that far so elementary and middle school children of today are the astronauts of tomorrow that may be slated for just such a mission.

Beyond our solar system is the best bet for finding life like our own, or at least a few planets like ours. An MIT team has discovered three planets that orbit a dwarf star about 40 light years away. Their sizes are about the same as Earth or Venus. The telescope the astronomy used to locate them is the TRAPPIST telescope located in Chile. This telescope is designed to specifically focus on a cluster of dwarf stars, 60 in number.  Belgian scientists created TRAPPIST to study the infrared wavelengths of dwarf stars and the planets surrounding them.

The scientist’s favorite dwarf star is an ultracool (as in thermally ultracool, not socially hip) star about the size of Jupiter and much cooler than our own sun. Beginning a period of observation in September, 2015, the astronomy team observed regular intervals of fading in the infrared signature of the star. They theorized that planets were passing in front of the star causing this to occur.

The team turned their attention to the time to expect a light fade event and discovered that there were, indeed, planets orbiting the star. The two nearest planets were similar in size to our own Earth and Venus. The closest planet that has everyone’s attention is named 2MASS J23062928-0502285, commonly called TRAPPIST-1. The two planets have orbit cycles, respectively, of 1.5 of our own days and 2.4 days. The amount of radiation they absorb from their star is significantly more than what we deal with. The closest one receives about four times the radiation we get and the next one about two times the amount. So, if there is any life there it would have to have evolved with natural radiation tolerance.

The third planet in distance from the star has an unknown orbit cycle. The scientists’ best guess so far is that it could be anywhere from four to 73 days but would receive significantly less radiation. I guess that’s good news. If we need to relocate I suppose we could deal with a four-day long day or even a two-month long day and not have to worry about skin cancer.

When the team analyzes the size of the planets in relation to the star, and take into account their proximity to their sun, they believe that life could be sustainable. They calculate that there could be areas with a temperature range less than 400 kelvins. That converts to about 260 degrees Fahrenheit or 127 degrees Celsius. Not exactly a tropical paradise but conditions where liquid water and organic life could survive.

The next step is to study the atmospheric conditions of the planets to see what their atmospheres are composed of. What kind of gases? Is there breathable oxygen? And they believe that within their own working career’s lifetime they will be able to determine if these planets are inhabited with life of some kind, say the next ten years or so.

This is a breakthrough in science. Traditionally scientists have studied bright solar stars like our own. By taking a risk and searching for a cool dwarf star, this MIT group has hit paydirt with the find of a lifetime. To accomplish their task they had to design a whole new set of instruments specialized to detect the radiation emitted by cold dwarf stars and only visible through an infrared telescope. The whole field of detecting other worlds changed simply by changing the wavelength humans were viewing the galaxy with. Perspective is everything.


Image Credit:

Singing Space Soup

On February 24 the gringa posted “Moon Music – It’s Classified” with an interesting audio recording from the Apollo 10 mission in 1969. Today I would like to share a great video posted by NASA entitled “NASA Space Sounds”. Although there is an eeriness to the multi-planet ensemble, the gringa finds the sounds to have a meditative quality.

Now, the gringa wants to know how music and sound is produced in outer space. Sound is a vibration that travels through air. In order for vibrations to travel through outer space molecules have to exist in outer space. It is the vibrating air molecules that produce the sound. Outer space is a vacuum, meaning that in the area between planets and stars, there are no molecules. So how is this space music produced?

These symphonies are, indeed, vibrating wave patterns. Planets and moons emit electromagnetic pulses that bounce back and forth between surrounding rings and atmospheric barriers that are not visible to the naked eye. The charged particles within these atmospheres, plasma, are the “carriers” of the sound.

To capture these sounds NASA uses space probes equipped with plasma wave antennae. One particular NASA spacecraft featuring a plasma wave antenna is Voyager. This craft also has on board “The Golden Record” which shares images and sounds from Earth. So, Voyager is on an interactive sound mission, capturing and sharing.

Other things Voyager has captured are “tsunami solar waves”. When there is a burst of energy from the sun, a solar flare, a plasma shockwave is created. It takes about one year for the shockwave to reach Voyager and have the sound recorded. NASA has three recordings thus far.

Shock waves from the sun, as well as cosmic rays from other nearby stars within our Milky Way galaxy, are filled with plasma particles. Plasma is dense and creates very rapid oscillations when something causes the particles to vibrate. A plasma “bubble”, also called a “bell”, surrounds stars like our sun. When a solar flare occurs it’s like ringing a bell. A plasma shockwave resonates. March, 2014 was the third recording by Voyager 1 of our singing Sun.

Plasma is very interesting. It is filled with charged particles. It’s kind of like space soup that has the potential to sing. So the Voyager spacecrafts are basically recording singing space soup. Space soup is also called interstellar space. This is the area of space that exists between stars and contains plasma.

The Voyager mission launched in 1977 with two Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 2 launched about two weeks earlier than Voyager 1 and is still on the job making it the longest operating spacecraft in history. Both Voyagers have visited Jupiter and Saturn. #2 did a fly-by of Uranus and Neptune. One thing they have taught us in their travels is that space is a noisy and musical place thanks to plasma.


Source & Image Credit:

Uranus – The Teenager Planet

Why are astronomers fascinated by Uranus? Some have even gone so far as to claim it is the best darn planet in the Solar System. The gringa says, “Hey! What about Earth and Mars? Aren’t they the ones NASA is making such a fuss over? Trying to save one and explore the other?”

Well, astronomical appreciation for Uranus is because it is just so bizarre. Bizarre, huh? Like, odd rainbow colored creatures with spiny noses and squishy springs for appendages and gumballs for tails? Well, no, not quite that bizarre.

Uranus is bizarre because, apparently, it’s a bit lazy. You see, other planets spin around on their axis,  or axi, the gringa’s not quite sure about the plural spelling of axis, but you know what I mean. To get back to the point, yes, Uranus is lazy. It does not spin on its axis like other planets. It lays on its side.

Another oddity is that, even though it is not the farthest planet from the Sun, it is the coldest. Perhaps that’s because it’s so darn lazy. It’s never up, spinning around creating friction and heat and all that good, heat-generating stuff that movement creates.

Also, Uranus is confused and misplaces things, things like its magnetic field. Its magnetic field is NOT where it’s supposed to be. Uranus is kind of like a teenager. It lays about doing a lot of nothing and is messy, laying other things about where they are not supposed to be.

One more thing that makes Uranus like a teenager is its greenish atmosphere. It’s moody. It vacillates between dull boredom and doing absolute nothing to crazy business.

Uranus also has an identity crisis. You know how a parent names a child, like, say, the gringa named her eldest son, Zachary, then he goes off to school and engages in some mild rebellion to assert his independence and comes home with a name like, say, Milkshake? Yes, that’s Uranus, too. While all the other planets were named after Roman gods, Uranus had to go and be different and have a name after a Greek god instead, Ouranos, the sky father, who beget Saturn (aka Cronus) and Jupiter (aka Zeus).

Another aspect of Uranus is, because of its laziness and slow motion movement, for a very long time it was thought to be a star. It wasn’t until 1781 that Sir William Hershel discovered that it was actually a planet. Poor Uranus, so misunderstood and underestimated.

If we chose to colonize Uranus instead of Mars, life would be rather odd living on a sideways planet. Summer would last for twenty years without a single sunset and winter would be just as long, spent entirely in darkness. The gringa would surely go mad.

It takes the planet over eighty years to orbit the sun. Surrounded by its 27 moons (that we know about) and ringed about by 13 circlets of rock and spacedust, Uranus plods along at its own snail’s pace. And those moons and rings are just as odd as the planet they surround.

One ring is made up completely of spacedust astronomers think came from the moon named Mab when it was hit by asteroids. Another ring has simply disappeared since the last image received while another moved about and is now somewhere else. But, perhaps the strangest ring of all is the one that “breathes”. Every few hours it expands and then contracts throughout a five kilometer difference. Now that’s just weird.

The moons don’t just orbit Uranus but seem to engage in a dance. They are not considered stable because they are constantly pushing and pulling one another with their different gravities. Scientists expect a few will eventually crash into one another and then who knows what kind of changes will develop. Maybe the planet will get another ring or two.

And with an atmosphere of hydrogen, helium, methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, the gringa’s pretty sure it would be a very unpleasant place to set up household. Everyone would speak ridiculously, no more opera and musicals to appreciate. The air would also smell like a big fart, everywhere, and your eyes would sting and tear. There are also storms with winds over 100 mph that can last for years.

However, one oddity that the gringa thinks may just make all that nastiness about the stinky, unpleasant air worth the sacrifice is what scientists think about the “oceans” of Uranus. Underneath those thick, smelly gas clouds there could be an “ocean” of liquid diamonds! For heaven’s sake! You don’t say?! The gringa has just GOT to know if this is true! Can you imagine! If it is, every single woman I know who loves sparkly things will be on the first commercial rocket, no matter the cost. Goodbye Earth!

So, what the heck happened to Uranus? What got it knocked off its axis? Some experts theorize a large moon, that is long since extinct, had a powerful gravitational pull that overpowered the planet. Others consider that perhaps it had a cosmic collision with something larger than Earth.

Unfortunately, NASA doesn’t expect to dig in to a deeply involved study of this mysterious planet anytime soon. We just don’t have the technology developed that can effectively get an orbiter that far away (almost 2 billion miles) and successfully cope with the instability of all the oddities of Uranus. But, with NASA, the word is never “impossible”. The word is always, well, the two words are always, “not yet”. So, the gringa hopes somewhere there are some NASA scientists as incredibly curious as herself and are being some Johnnies-on-the-spot getting this technology developed. I just have to know more!

Source & Photo Credit: